News Brief: George Floyd Funeral, N.Y. Police Bills, State Environmental Records

Jun 9, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 1:32 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today will be the final memorial service for George Floyd. He will be buried in Houston, where he spent much of his life before moving to Minneapolis. His death at the hands of Minneapolis police has drawn national attention and so have his memorial services. His funeral today will be streamed live online, and several local leaders and celebrities are expected to attend.

David, you are there in Houston. You have been covering memorial events for George Floyd. What can you tell us about what's expected to happen today?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, this is going to all take place today at Fountain of Praise. It's a megachurch here in Houston. As you said, they're going to be celebrities there in addition to friends and family. You'll see the Reverend Al Sharpton, the actor Jamie Foxx, the rapper Ludacris. Former Vice President Joe Biden did travel here to Houston. He met with the Floyd family Monday. Biden reportedly is going to appear in a video at the funeral but is not going to be there in person. There was concern that the Secret Service might distract from these events. And then in a private ceremony, George Floyd is going to be laid to rest, we should say, right next to his mom.

MARTIN: So you've been having conversations with people who knew him. How are they marking this moment?

GREENE: Well, there was a vigil last night at Yates High School. That's where Floyd went to school, played football. It was a sticky Texas night. I mean, there were students, former students, you know, braving the heat. The police chief of Houston was there with police officers, city council members. But I got to say, some of Floyd's closest friends did not want to be there. They called this a media spectacle. And I spent some time with them at a home last night talking about memories. Ortierre Lawson played football with Floyd and said that Floyd was kind of a team motivator.

ORTIERRE LAWSON: Practice was so doggone hard that coach didn't allow us to have water. And we would be thirsty and things. And the way we would get through it is someone like Floyd would just bust out singing. And when he bust out singing, the whole team would start singing. It may be as something simple as coach called the kickoff team to come on the field. And you'll you hear Floyd say, (singing) kickoff team, kickoff team.

And then the rest of the team going to start saying - (singing) kickoff team.

So Floyd was the type of person that would try to uplift you, but he was real about it.

MARTIN: Oh, I love that.

GREENE: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's such an intimate moment. I mean, this is complicated for people who knew him because there are layers to this. Right? It's them remembering their friend, also the way in which he was killed. And then there's the larger context - the protests, the demands for racial justice and police reform. What are people saying to you about that?

GREENE: Well, Ortierre - who we just heard from - I mean, in addition to remembering his friend, I mean, he talked to me last night about this moment and what it's like to be a black man in America watching yet another death at the hand of the police.

O LAWSON: No one has ever walked in a black man's shoes. No one has ever walked in anyone's shoes. A black man's footsteps are hard. I am an ordained minister, I am educated, and I'm a ex-all-American football player. If all of us were to walk in the store right now, you know they going to look at me first? Just about every black man I know have to watch their back. And I think we as a country - we as a nation need to understand and respect the fact that you have not walked in these shoes, so you do not know our walk. But you can treat me as a human being. That's the difference.

GREENE: And so, Rachel, so many people like him, I mean, who knew Floyd and so many others are hoping that his death is somehow some kind of catalyst for real change finally.

MARTIN: David, thank you. David Greene reporting from Houston. We appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So there is this nationwide call to change how police departments are funded as well as the policies that govern them. And in some parts of the country, that call is being met with swift action. I mean, over the weekend, we saw Minneapolis' city council commit to dismantling its police department. In New York yesterday, the state legislature there quickly passed a first wave of bills around policing. Governor Andrew Cuomo said he'll sign those bills into law. Meanwhile, more states are talking about how to make their own reforms.

NPR's Brian Mann's been following this, and he joins us now. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Explain what they did in New York.

MANN: Well, maybe the most dramatic change is going to be a law making chokeholds illegal when used by police. In some cases, it'll be a felony. A lot of police departments across New York state had already banned this procedure, but now it will be a criminal offense. And this measure was named after Eric Garner, a black man who died in 2014 after he was placed in a chokehold by a white officer. His dying words, I can't breathe, were recorded on a cellphone video. They became one of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement. And yesterday, state Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents Harlem, said this reform just had to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN BENJAMIN: We unfortunately have not been providing safety for African Americans in this country - period. What this bill does it says - you know what? - we're going to try to move closer to a system where everyone feels safe in this country.

MANN: And remarkably, Republican senators who've blocked similar reforms for years, they voted with Democrats on this. It passed unanimously.

MARTIN: I mean, it does seem like things are happening quickly. These reforms were passed in record time. Are these changes driven solely by the demonstrations?

MANN: Yeah. I mean, George Floyd's death was the big catalyst here. And we also had this violent incident last week in Buffalo, N.Y., where a 75-year-old man was pushed to the ground by police. That created a ton of momentum. But there's something else pretty big driving this. It's interesting. In 2018, Democrats took control of the state Senate in New York for the first time in years. And for the first time ever in history, black lawmakers lead both chambers of the state legislature. So there are politicians in Albany with a lot of power who say they really get what the protesters are talking about.

And so those lawmakers yesterday also passed other measures banning racial profiling, requiring police departments to collect data that might reveal bias in policing. And today they're expected to go further, approving a measure that makes disciplinary actions against police far more transparent. I should say, there is - one thing that protesters have been calling for is defunding police or dismantling police departments. There's nothing on the agenda right now in the state legislature here that would go that far.

MARTIN: However law enforcement unions, police organizations in New York responded?

MANN: Yeah, they're furious. The head of the New York State Sheriffs' Association issued a statement rejecting the basic idea that there's systemic racial bias in policing. He called the idea disgusting. And the powerful union that represents NYPD officers describes these reforms as an attack on law enforcement. They plan to hold a big rally later today to try to block what's happening in Albany.

MARTIN: So that's New York. What movement have you seen in other states?

MANN: Yeah, it's a mixed bag and nothing happening nearly as fast. This isn't typical - Oregon's legislature talking about some weeks to go here; Pennsylvania talking about maybe some kind of special session - so moving much more slowly in other states.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann in upstate New York.

Brian, thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Hundreds of facilities, including factories and farms, say they can't comply with some environmental regulations because of the coronavirus pandemic. An NPR investigation found that companies have asked for a wide range of special permissions right now.

For more, we've got NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher with us. Hi, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: What kind of special allowances are we talking about?

HERSHER: Well, it's a real grab bag. Some of the issues are relatively minor - for example, submitting an annual report a few weeks late. But I found a fair number of more substantial requests. And these were generally from industries that release a lot of pollution. For example, landfills have been asking states to relax pollution rules. Or hog farms, they've asked for permission to house extra animals because meatpacking plants are temporarily closed. Oil and gas companies asked states to back off on enforcement of a wide range of environmental regulations, and that included checking for leaks in storage tanks and measuring pollution from smokestacks.

MARTIN: I don't get that, though. Why can't oil and gas companies check for pollution during a pandemic?

HERSHER: Right. So they gave a couple of reasons. Maybe furloughs got in the way - like, if employees who usually write and file pollution reports weren't working because of the pandemic. Another reason that companies gave is that a lot of pollution monitoring is done by outside contractors, and they weren't bringing outside people into facilities because of the virus. And we know these details because a small number of states make them public. But another problem here is that no one is systematically keeping track of this kind of information nationwide.

MARTIN: And why? Why is that?

HERSHER: Well, back in March, the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, put out a pandemic policy that said companies don't have to warn federal regulators if they feel like the pandemic is interfering with this kind of routine pollution monitoring or testing. Instead, they said states could keep track of that information - if they choose to. And the EPA says this is how it works; it partners with states. And that is how a lot of environmental regulation works, although former EPA officials say this policy gives industries a lot of leeway.

Now, some states, they are doing this kind of tracking. Minnesota is notably publishing every request for regulatory leniency that they receive. Indiana and Pennsylvania are publishing some records. But I found that most states don't publish any information about which companies say the pandemic is getting in the way of their environmental compliance, which means most Americans who live near factories or refineries or farms, they don't have any way to know whether the pandemic is causing extra pollution.

MARTIN: Which I imagine can be anxiety-producing - I mean, how are people who live near these sorts of facilities dealing with that uncertainty?

HERSHER: Exactly. I mean, it's particularly frustrating, it seems, for people who live downstream or downwind of facilities that have violated environmental laws in the past before the pandemic. And I found multiple examples like that - for example, a mine in Indiana that has polluted in the past and asked the state regulator for a special concession due to the pandemic. The state told the mine no, you can't have that concession. And most of the requests I looked at were denied. But the only reason we know is because Indiana published this information, like some states. And most states, they just aren't doing that, which means most Americans are in the dark.

MARTIN: NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher. Great reporting, Becky. Thank you for sharing it with us.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.